Poets often get in touch with us asking how to get their poetry published, so this article aims to give a few pointers. It’s always been quite hard for poets to get their work taken on because poetry doesn’t on the whole have a huge market. For this reason poetry publishing in the UK has been publicly subsidised by the Arts Council for a number of years.
Most poetry lists are pretty small. They tend to be either poetry imprints in large publishing houses, such as the Jonathan Cape poetry list at Random House or the Picador list at Macmillan, long-established independents such as Faber, and a number of Arts Council funded publishers including larger houses such as Bloodaxe and Carcanet, smaller independent ones such as Flambard, Arc and Anvil, and pamphlet publishers such as Rack Press and Knives Forks and Spoons Press.
Publishers always have to be cautious about what they take on and there are good reasons for this. Poetry is not usually given much space in bookshops and in most of them it is difficult to find poetry sections that go much beyond some bestselling backlist and a few new volumes. Publishers have to work hard to launch new poets and they are therefore very selective about who they take on.
The good news though is that there is a lot you can do to kickstart your own career as a poet and to get your work out there in front of the public. This has changed radically over the years, with more and more readings, the proliferation of poetry magazines, self-publishing and the web all offering opportunities.
Working on your poetry
It is important to work at your poetry and get it into the best shape you can before you submit it to anyone. This is true of any kind of writing, but especially so of poetry. Because writing poetry is a solitary activity, often sandwiched in between paid work and other kinds of writing, you may find it a real help to join a poetry writing group to get the benefit of other writers’ critical input. There are also many creative writing courses available, both full and part-time, and also evening classes which concentrate on poetry or offer it as part of a course.
You can also send your work to the Poetry Society, which runs a paid advisory service which enables you to send in poems to be critiqued.
There are also a number of books which help with getting your poetry into good shape and published - a good one is by Chris Hamilton-Emery, the Publishing Director of Salt Publishing, and it's called 101 Ways to Make Poems Sell. There’s a review here.
Reading as much poetry as you can will not only improve your own work but it will also help you to understand what is going on in the poetry world you are trying to enter. If you have problems finding a particular book, our bookshop lists a range of our recommendations and we should be able to get hold of any poetry book which is in print in the UK.
If you find it hard to work out which new poetry is most worth reading, consider joining the Poetry Book Society, the world’s only poetry book club. Our Poet Selectors recommend the best new collections from the UK and Ireland to members all over the world.
Take any opportunity you get to publicise your work. Even if it’s a small and poorly-attended reading, it is still a way of beginning to build your audience and your own confidence. What’s more, large quantities of books can be sold through readings, so it’s worth considering having a self-published book, pamphlet or CD to sell.
Similarly, enter as many competitions as you can, as they all give kudos and cash to the winners, and the big ones, such as the National Poetry Competition in the UK (which is open to everyone internationally) and the Foyle Young Poets (open only to 12-18 year-olds) are very prestigious too. New competitions and prizes are being set up all the time and we will supply a listing of these shortly on this site.
Try magazines first
The best way to start getting your name around is by submitting individual poems, perhaps three or four at a time, to poetry magazines. There are a great many poetry magazines published in both the US and the UK and each one has a slightly different editorial brief. A good place to research them is the UK Poetry Library’s poetry magazines page, which supplies full versions of magazines which you can read online. Our own magazine links section provides another list.
In the UK a few well-known magazines are Poetry Review, PN Review and Poetry London, whereas in the States the most prominent are the distinguished Poetry and American Poetry Review. Bear in mind though that the smaller and less well-known magazines may be a better place to start, as the more established magazines tend to concentrate on better-known and already-established poets.
Pamphlets and chapbooks
Poetry pamphlets and chapbooks are part of a thriving small press scene in the UK and are an excellent way of getting your poems into print for the first time. Pamphlet publishers tend to be very energetic about promotion and, if taken on, you will be expected to promote your work at readings. Pamphlets are also quite easy to self-publish (see below).
Don’t even try to approach publishers until you have a collection-length amount of material to offer. Your chances will be much better even then if you can point to publication of your poems in magazines.
Don’t waste any time trying to get a literary agent to represent you. Only the best-known poets have representation, because there is just so little money in poetry that agents don’t want to bother with taking poets on. If you can muster any kind of contact or referral, it is a way of getting your work noticed in the small world of poetry publishing and might help you on your way. Be patient though, it is still a long, hard road to publication.
You may feel that it is better to hedge your options by going the self-publishing route. Fortunately this is now very much cheaper and easier than it used to be and the final result is much more satisfactory. There are plenty of websites which offer this, but bear in mind that you will need to keep a careful eye on your work, as there will be no editor to make sure that it is properly proof-read.
You might be best advised to think in terms of publishing a pamphlet first and many pamphlets are self- published. It’s also generally regarded as a good way to get attention for new work. There are a number of pamphlet competitions you can enter, including those from the Poetry Business and Templar, and the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets.
Once you have your pamphlet or collection in your hand the hard work will start, as you will have to figure out how to sell it. Fortunately print on demand economies mean that the financial hit is not too great. The great advantage is that you can sell your book or pamphlet directly, after readings or from your own website.
So, good luck and we hope you succeed with getting your poetry published.
Chris Holifield is the Director of the Poetry Book Society and the Poetry Bookshop Online. She is also the co-founder of Writers' Services, the largest writers’ website in the UK, which offers a range of information and services for writers.
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